LAND O'LAKES — Elizabeth Montesi watched last week as her 7-year-old son, J.T., punched and jabbed in his white tae kwon do dobak. He and the other children in the martial arts class were working on their coordination and balance. But the biggest benefit for J.T. was the social aspect of the class.
"They're working on all these skills that he normally has trouble with," said Montesi, whose son has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism characterized by difficulties with social interaction. "The biggest benefit has been to his self-confidence because of the social atmosphere. His motor skills are improving too. He's more nimble and better on his feet than he was before."
This month the Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex began offering tae kwon do classes for kids with special needs, ranging in age from 3 to 22. Instructor Angela Hill spent 16 years working as a occupational therapist for a private company in Tampa, but these days she has her own business that provides a therapy style all its own, called Achievable Community Interaction Therapy.
The four-week sessions at the Land O'Lakes complex cost $250. By using gymnastics, tae kwon do and soon yoga, Hill is helping special needs kids bridge the gap between isolation and feeling embraced by their peers.
"A lot of kids in our classes don't get to the chance to go into a regular tae kwon do studio or gymnastics class because of their special needs," Hill said. "We want to get the families involved and work on their basic skills and coordination so that they can possibly have the chance to go out into the community some day and participate in these things."
Through the tae kwon do class, Hill and her trained staff of instructors are able to help the children improve basic motor skills, hand-eye coordination, balance and discipline. Using the martial art in this way is something Hill believes can help the kids grow physically, mentally and socially.
"One of the challenges we have is that the kids have issues with bi-lateral coordination and knowing where their body is in space," she said. "We help them make the right adaptations with their body to be able to do a side kick or do a move that is normally difficult for them. Tae kwon do has a lot of things that it can offer, but it's that peer interaction of high-fiving each other that is very important."
Sam Giglia sat in on a class Wednesday to see his 10-year-old daughter, Kaitlin, work on her kicks. But he was happiest to see his daughter, who has autism, developing discipline.
"Tae kwon do does two things: It helps get her exercise, and her self-control is better," Giglia said. "These instructors do a very good job at making the kids comfortable. This is my daughter's first time doing something like this, but she loves it and looks forward to coming every week."